Obama's cold calculation on global warming

Hundreds of existing coal-burning plants could be shut down under expected EPA rules aimed at curbing climate change. But such action must be accompanied by Obama appealing directly to people in coal-dependent states who would be making the big sacrifices.

Southern Company's Plant Bowen in Cartersville, Georgia is seen in this 2007 aerial photograph.

As president, Barack Obama has never visited North Dakota. Does that matter? Yes, if he now acts to effectively shut down hundreds of coal-burning power plants, a regulatory move that officials say is only days away.

In 2010, North Dakota generated 82 percent of its electricity from coal. Many other states, from Wyoming to Kentucky, rely heavily on coal for either energy or jobs. In 15 states, at least half of the power comes from coal. To be sure, they are among the worst contributors to global warming.

Yet people in these states would be forced to make the largest personal sacrifice in Mr. Obama’s plan to dethrone “king coal” and help the United States be a leader in curbing climate change.

The president should now visit those places heavily dependent on coal and try better persuasion. This would be smart politics to avoid the blocking tactics of both Democratic and Republican leaders from those states. But it would also address on a personal level the fact that Americans in general remain resistant to the sacrifices needed for drastic reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions.

Five years ago, for example, 48 percent of Americans said their personal actions on energy use would significantly reduce their contribution to global warming; that figure has since dropped to 31 percent, according to the latest survey by Yale and George Mason universities.

Such trends show Obama has work to do. And those states most dependent on fossil fuels are most in need of being convinced of their common bond to the rest of humanity and to future generations. Environmental action relies more on individuals than government to see themselves in a wider, even global community and accept the discipline and sacrifice needed to protect the planet.

That may sound a bit corny, but the main tactic of climate-change activists – stoking fear – hasn’t worked very well over the past quarter century. And appeals that rely on scientific predictions of temperature increases and to economic self-interest have also shown their limits.

Obama blames Congress for not requiring the existing coal plants to end carbon emissions into the atmosphere – a requirement that is unfeasible with current commercial technology. He has long threatened to take executive action. Indeed White House officials said this week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will soon issue regulations on existing plants.

Such tough emission rules will probably face a long battle in the courts with suits filed by coal-dependent states – whether their governors are Democratic or Republican. Kansas, Montana, and West Virginia have already advised the Supreme Court that the EPA is abusing its authority under the Clean Air Act.

Heather Zichal, the White House coordinator for energy and climate change, says Obama has made action on climate change a “legacy issue” for his second term. If so, he needs to do more than give speeches on global warming in Washington or, as he did this week, in Berlin.

“Peace with justice means refusing to condemn our children to a harsher, less hospitable planet,” he told the Germans. Now he needs to look North Dakotans in the eye and convince them of the need for heart-felt responsibility – and sacrifice – for the rest of the world.

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